Home / When the Forgetting Ends, the Mourning Can Begin

When the Forgetting Ends, the Mourning Can Begin

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At the end of October 2007, the Spanish Congress of Deputies passed the Law of Historical Memory, the purpose of which was to come to terms with both the memory and record of the fascist Franco administration that held power from the end of the civil war in 1939 through to his death in 1975.

During that time, more than 200,000 Spaniards died in the repression, either executed following summary trials, or dying in the forced-labour camps. Franco's avowed intention was to exterminate all opposition and he ruthlessly squashed any and every individual and organisation that opposed him. All organisations, political and industrial, were subverted to his rule and those people who resisted were summarily killed.

When Franco's rule came to an end in 1975, there followed an uneasy transition to democracy in which it was collectively, though unofficially, agreed that an assessment of the causes of and responsibilities for the conflict and what followed would be postponed until Spain was stable. Until, that is, democracy was well-established and secure. Only then would it be safe to investigate the actions of the Franco dictatorship without the risk of political instability. The agreement was called pacto del olvido, a Spanish phrase that in this context has no exact translation but means a pact of forgetting, a putting out of mind, a not-mentioning.

Spanish democracy was already strong enough by February 1981 to brush off an attempted coup by Lieutentant-Colonel Antonio Tejero Molina. Although broadcast live on international television when he stormed the Cortes waving a pistol, it degenerated into little more than farce, despite the apparent vacillation of the king.

The period of olvido continued until a few years ago when the younger generation in particular were keen to understand what had taken place. Many of the older generation had relatives who had disappeared and they too wanted to know what had happened. There remain in Spain an estimated 115,000 unmarked graves, the overwhelming majority containing republicans killed by Franco's administration.

The Law of Historical Memory was the legislation which for the first time condemned Franco's regime, removed remaining fascist insignia from public places, recognised the victims on both sides of the civil war, removed much of the Francoist legislation still on the books, and most important, provided the means and support for relatives trying to trace their family members who had disappeared during those times.

This was a controversial bill, not least because there were fears it would open up old wounds and reawaken old hostilities, but as many elderly people testified, the wounds could never heal without coming to terms with what had happened.

Judge Baltasar Garzón, in October 2008, declared the Francoist repression a crime against humanity and ordered the exhumation of nineteen graves near Málaga, one of them believed to contain the remains of Federico García Lorca, one of Spain's foremost poets. Since then, very many more grave sites have been identified and the opening of prison records and state assistance have enabled many relatives to trace their missing family members.

Just this week, in Órgiva in Southern Andalucía, the largest known common grave has been commemorated.  It contains over 5000 bodies, all of whom were shot and buried in lime, many while still alive.

In contrast to many other countries in the aftermath of a civil war, there has been no Truth and Reconciliation Commission, no public coming to terms with the events. Instead, the pain and hostility was simply buried on the assumption that with the passing of the generations, time would heal the wounds. To some extent, that has happened – most youngsters have only vague knowledge of the events of the civil war and its aftermath and they've grown up in a democracy.

But all across Spain, not always in the glare of publicity, there are towns exhuming the victims of the war and the repression, to ensure that after all this time, they won't be forgotten after all.  Political events of such magnitude leave a mark on the consciousness of a country, pervade its culture, and to some extent affect the reactions and emotions of all its citizens.  Even now, there are old people who become scared at the sight of a policeman.  For them, the end of olvido and the exhumations are essential parts of recognising their experiences, of acknowledging what they suffered and endured.

There are very many families who will never find their lost relatives, so long ago were the events and so sketchy the records and accounts from those times.  But many take comfort simply in the fact that at long last, those events are no longer being forgotten.  

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About Bob Lloyd

  • Saw some photos not too long ago at the International Center for Photography here in New York of Spanish Civil War graves being dug up. It was in conjunction with a Robert Capa exhibit, but these were recent photos, blown up to life size, of old people standing around graves where murdered relatives had been buried all those years ago. Extremely powerful stuff.

  • Earlier this year, I was sent an account of a local man from my village here in Spain, who was taken away as the Falangists entered the town on 19th July 1936. He was taken to Algeciras where he was eventually shot and it was only thanks to the detective work by a local man that his story was uncovered.

    I translated it into English for a local Spanish blog so that English speakers could access it and I attracted some harsh criticism from right-wing Spaniards who argued that such events should be permanently forgotten. Indeed some were quite virulent in their condemnation of even the writing of the account let alone that it should have been translated.

    They had two complaints. One was that mentioning the events would inevitably produce the same hostilities as seventy years ago. The other was that in every mention of the events it was essential to preserve balance and neutrality amd therefore catalogue corresponding events on the other side.

    The first point was rejected by Spaniards themselves who argued that if those hostilities remained, they remained despite olvido. The second point I answered on the blog by drawing a distinction between the objectivity needed when reporting historical events, and the political commitment the teller might have. The history of the civil war available in Spain during Franco’s time was exclusively written by the victors. There was no assessment of the crimes committed by Franco’s administration and therefore a deliberate imbalance in the historical record. That is one of the reasons for the Law of Historical Memory.

    Spain was subjected to an extremely effective ideological control for more than thirty years where contrary views were stamped out with harsh prison sentences. More than 400,000 Spaniards chose exile rather than live under such conditions. Now, with the work of Paul Preston, Ian Gibson in English and many Spanish historians, a great deal is known about the workings of the Francoist state. Nevertheless the Partido Popular (PP) continues to campaign against the end of olvido which may be related to the fact that the PP itself arose from the rump of supporters of Franco after his death.

  • Bob, this post does a great job of explaining why it is important for Spain to go through the process of remembering, despite what some on the right say. I am a historian interested in issues of contested memory, and the memory of the Spanish Civil War has recently grabbed my attention. I was glad to read your post.